Review: Dragon Age: Origins

December 1, 2009, Author: Ray Willmott

Over the years, I’ve learned to trust the judgement and quality of products from a certain brand of developer, the names of whom can be counted on a single hand. Among them, I would include Valve, Blizzard, Bioware and Bethesda for their care and consideration to both their fanbase and their constantly evolving and exciting franchises.

Just to give you some perspective; in the last decade, Bioware have given us Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Neverwinter Nights and Mass Effect, to name but a few. Bioware is aware of what makes a good game and a compelling narrative and how to put them both together seamlessly. With Dragon Age: Origins, the true greatness of Bioware continues to shine, and occasionally sparkles and dazzles beyond anything they’ve ever done before.

Fulfill your Destiny
Dragon Age has been touted as a spiritual successor to the Baldur’s Gate series, but the plot is unrelated and not based on Dungeons and Dragons. The game begins with one of six origin stories, depending on which race and character class you select. After completing this, the player will encounter Duncan, a man entrusted with leading and guiding the elite Grey Wardens in Ferelden. Duncan will serve as your mentor in the game and help the player fulfil his or her destiny of becoming a Grey Warden and fending off the Darkspawn, a force of evil that lives underground and invades the land dwellers in a flurry known as the Blight. As the story progresses, so the player will come to know the responsibilities and abilities of the Grey Warden, the sacrifices that need to be made and the attention that is drawn to you. The game itself is so rich with history and detail that at times it’s overwhelming. Bioware have packed this game to the full and if you’re a fantasy buff in the slightest, this game is a dream come true.

Of course, gamers are used to this sort of quality from Bioware, hence the great apprehension when EA acquired them. Fears abounded that the quality that fans are used to from the company was going to be lost within a rush for deadlines and the lust for money. Fortunately, having played the game, I can ease your fears and say that is categorically not the case. Although, with the advertising campaign backing the game, I’m not entirely sure EA has really captured the mood and feel for what the game is all about. As much as I like rock music, and do appreciate some of Mr Manson’s tunes, I’m not entirely sure ‘Are you motherfucking ready for the new shit?!’ is really the way to promote what this game is all about. Certainly, the game is more graphic than other Bioware games; your characters are now smattered with blood after every fight, which is carried around on each party member until you change the screen or you get the dog to lick it off you (yes, you read that right). However, the premise of the game and indeed the dialogue are entirely reminiscent of growing up in the Two Rivers or exploring the Shire with the hobbits.

Grey Warden’s are bad ass and all, but how do they work?!
The dialogue system is the same as in previous Bioware games; a set of pre-written answers and questions that are selected and then spoken to an NPC; however, the choices you make and things you say will directly influence you and your group more than ever before. What’s different in Dragon Age is that the main character does not have an alignment between good and bad; the game isn’t as black and white as that. Instead, it focuses on the members of your party and how they react to you. For example, agreeing to help a villager with his plight when the balance of the entire world hinges on you, and the timescale you work to will garner you some affection from one character but may seriously agitate another. Also, unlike in previous games, it is now possible to play the game through without collecting all possible followers, meaning not all of them are integral to the main storyline. Alignment can also be defined through the medium of gifts, which is a new feature for a Bioware game. Throughout the campaign you collect gifts by exploring different areas; most, such as flowers, books and trinkets will gain you a small amount of favour with an ally if you offer it to them. There are also exceptional gifts which will have some sort of sentimental value to a party member, and by offering them you can greatly increase their loyalty to you. This is particularly helpful if you are pursuing romantic subplots and want to gain favour with the opposite sex as quickly as possible, or if a party member is on the verge of leaving your party and you need to make amends.

There's always time for tender loving care in Dragon Age.

There's always time for tender loving care in Dragon Age.

The origins system also gives a whole other layer of detail to your self-created central protagonist through the six opening stories already mentioned. Each of these short stories will sow the seeds of the epic events that are set to take place in the main story. Through these origin stories your character will be detailed in different ways depending on which one you select. Without giving anything away, the origin stories, whilst fairly short, are also extraordinary in their own individual scope and provide a hitherto unseen level of intimacy with the main character. It really adds an extra dimension to your protagonist, making his or her struggles seem all the more significant. It also helps tie the story together more tightly and can help to influence your decisions by encouraging you to consider the way this individual character will react in a particular scenario based on their background.

If the last image to cross before my eyes is your beauty, then I shall die happy.
Graphically, the game is a mixed bag. At times, when close up or looking at a far off landscape, Dragon Age is a marvel to behold. You can see the developers spent some real time finely crafting the characters and making them seem real enough to touch. The lip sync is also done well in time with the voice acting, which is always a refreshing change in games; usually the character appears to be mouthing something completely opposite to what is being said, or it seems so animatronic that you can’t help but laugh at the almost absurd motions on their faces.

Also, the backdrops for the game are good for the most part. I did find some repetition when entering buildings, as though different areas were made up with the same coat of paint. However, they do work in context of the game, whether to show the similarity of villagers’ houses or to keep some consistency with each floor of a castle or tower, so it is forgivable. The change in weather and the time of day is also an excellent way of showing that life continues to happen all around you in this game, and that it is not all simply contained in a burst of sunshine or a blackened sky. However, as I previously alluded to, I feel this game lacks the overall polish of Mass Effect, which seems to possess a superior graphical model. In comparison, Dragon Age can come across as being glitchy; the model movement sometimes seems stuttery and stunted, even blocky. I know Mass Effect itself was not without its own faults, but something about Dragon Age, while crisp, doesn’t seem as fluid and emboldened as the sci-fi masterpiece. Still, the graphics of the game are clear enough for you to immerse yourself in this rich fantasy world and will not detract unduly from your experience.

The control scheme is a mixed bag and ultimately players would benefit more from the PC experience than the console counterpart. This game will do nothing to convince PC gamers that playing an RPG can be fun on a game pad. While the ability for variety in controls and options for a particular game are endless when you play on a keyboard and mouse, the same can’t be said for a controller pad, which usually has to double up, making things more complicated and awkward when trying to access menus. In the case of Dragon Age, the basics are easily accessible and managed, and the game can merely be played with a few button presses and guidance via the analog. But players more familiar with what the game can and can’t do and want to try and access some of the more advanced content will find it can be more trouble than it’s worth, sometimes having to press up to three buttons at a time.

Gimme back my cookie!!!

Gimme back my cookie!!!

Hear my voice heathen, and experience my wrath!
The voice acting in Dragon Age is a real mixed bunch. There are, of course, the set voice types on the character customisation screen, which all vary in their style, and there are the actors you encounter throughout the game. In fact, I think this is the largest casting list in a Bioware game to date, and features names both familiar and unfamiliar. Leliane’s accent in particular you won’t have heard before in a computer game. It has a bit of everything, and it took me a while to figure out its origin (which is French Canadian by the way!)

The music is utterly unlike the Marilyn Manson piece that has been used to promote the game; it’s a much more fantasy  feel. There is no Brutal Legend style soundtrack to be found here, but the instrumentals are altogether charming, tranquil, compelling and inspiring. Each tune perfectly replicates the mood in which you play, and is a real reflection as to what is happening in the game. Sometimes, it’s nice to stop playing, stand back with a nice orchestra in the background, admiring some of the beautiful detail within the game. Truly, Bioware have captured the essence of combining both graphics and sound, really utilising them properly to detail a fabulous world that is as rich as the gameplay and storyline.  Bioware paint a vivid picture that delights in its splendour.

There was one occasion I was frustrated by the sound effects. It was at camp toward the game’s beginning, and all I could hear were dogs barking in the background. After a while, this became quite annoying, especially when conversing with other characters, and sometimes found they drowned out the words being spoken. I understand what Bioware were trying to do there, but I think reducing the barking would have still given players the idea of what was happening, but at the same time kept the realistic feel.
It was my only noticeable frustration however; everything else seemed to be spot on.

To explore, or not to explore? What’s the verdict.
Essentially, as with all Bioware titles, the game is what you make it. You can get as much out of the story or as little as you like. You can spend time reading up on the history of the world’s great legends and myths, exploring regions which can link to back stories for your followers or provide new quests and challenges for you to face from bounty boards or helping out folk with their dilemmas.

While it lacks the polish of Mass Effect and the finesse of Jade Empire, Dragon Age Origins is still a work of art, and is an example of how far Bioware have come with their concepts and ideas. This is a realisation of their dreams, a feat they have strived to obtain over the last decade and have been gradually working towards. While this is not as far as one could go with this concept, and certainly technology and development time still hinder its full potential, this is as good as you can find out there right now. Dragon Age: Origins is an excellent Role Playing Game and is indeed one of the best games released this year. The game is long, it’s full of variety, and it appears it is being greatly supported by Bioware with the third piece of gameplay based downloadable content due before Christmas. Bioware have done it again, Dragon Age: Origins is a truly brilliant piece, and entertainment at its finest.


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